Abhishek Mukherjee, cricketsoccer’s prolific writer, brings to you the words, verbal or written, almost never intended to be pathbreaking quotes in the history of cricket in this fascinating series…….
Complete quote: “While envying them, we wish them the best of luck, and give them the assurance that we have utter and implicit faith in their ability to represent English Women’s Cricket.”
By: Marjorie Pollard, Women’s Cricket, July 1934.
We have already seen how in the 19th century, growing up in isolation from English and Australian cricket, New Zealand offered equal opportunities to both sexes when it came to the sport. By 1900 the women of Canterbury and Wellington were playing matches of reasonable importance.
They had left their counterparts in Australia far behind. The Forget-me-Nots of Allansford were the best team of the era. The glovework of Mabel Gazzard earned accolades from Jack Blackham, no less. They regularly beat men’s sides, but they usually consisted of, to quote Riverine Herald, “the liberal-girth-and-waistcoat order of people”. Their female rivals, Nirranda Club of Seafoam, were not quite all-conquering.
In England, the first recorded women’s cricket match was played in 1743 at Godsden Common (near Guildford, Surrey), between Bramley and Hambledon.
On July 11, 1747, the following appeared in General Advertiser: “On Monday next will certainly be played in the Artillery Ground, London, the match at cricket so long expected between the women of Charlton and Singleton … against the women of the women of West Dean and Chilgrove”. Both teams were from Sussex. They were supposedly presented with the “singular honour of being bidden to play a cricket match.”
This was an eventful match. The match could not start to a pitch invasion. “Some of them were frightened and the others hurt,” wrote Women’s Cricket. The match apparently went on till 9 AM the next day, though it was probably not played in the dark.
Upham, Wilts hosted a match on July 23, 1768, where a team of single women beat another, of married women. The prize? A plum cake and a barrel of ale.
“High-society” women’s matches were not rare in the 18th century. Morning Post mentions a 1777 match at Oaks, Surrey, “between Countess of Derby [Elizabeth Smith-Stanley] and some other Ladies of quality and fashion.” Elizabeth Ann Burnell, top-scorer in the match, created such “irresistible impression” that the 8th Duke of Hamilton fell in love and married her before the next cricket season.
John Sackville, the 3rd Duke of Dorset, wrote a letter to his friends that same year: “What is human life but a game of cricket? … And if so, why should not the ladies play it as well as we?”
However, his intentions might not have been entirely driven by the noble cause of the sport. In The Pebble in My Shoe, Roy Case pointed out that the Duke “liked his women sporty, and his eventual support for the women’s game was just one his many endeavours in assisting women to participate.”
Indeed, the Duke and the Countess of Derby got involved in a relationship that came out in public next year. We shall leave out the unnecessary bits, but it must be mentioned here that the Countess had no option but to leave the country after being separated from her husband, while the Duke’s marriage survived happily.
But enough of nobility. In October 1811, Hampshire beat Surrey in a three-day, 22-a-side women’s match played for 500 guineas a side at Ball’s-pond, Newington. The match attracted reasonable crowd despite poor weather.
The sides were distinguished by their ribbons (royal purple for Hampshire, orange and blue for Surrey). The ages of the cricketers varied from 14 to 60. Anne Baker, the sexagenarian, was “the best runner and bowler on the Surrey side”.
One Hampshire batter scored 41 in the first innings “before she was thrown out” (run out, I presume, not expelled). Hampshire eventually won by “15 notches” (runs). The Times reported how “although each party seemed to exert their utmost skill and activity against their adversaries, the utmost harmony and good humour prevailed amongst them.”
It is widely believed that the dimensions of Christina Willes’s skirt were indirectly responsible for round-arm bowling. Imitating her action, His brother John tried to bowl round-arm and was no-balled in 1821. He left Lord’s on his horse, “parked” outside the ground, never to return to First-Class cricket.
It must be mentioned here that while John Willes’s action is documented, several historians have expressed doubts over Christina’s role in the story.
Things went downhill in Victorian England, when women’s cricket remained confined to social affairs despite the imposing presence of Martha Grace.
There were assorted matches and mentions. Girls of a school near Frome were good at cricket in the late 1860s. Helen Mathers wrote a semi-autobiographical novel in 1875 titled Coming Thro’ the Rye (later adapted into a silent British movie). The book mentions how the girls of Frome’s Chantry School took to cricket.
White Heather Club, the first ever women’s cricket club, was founded at Nun Appleton in 1887. It lasted till 1950. To quote Tessa McLaren from Wisden, the members were “mostly Yorkshire ladies with enough money to pay their own expenses.”
In 1890, two professional teams toured England, playing “select and refined” matches against sides across the country. They are remembered as the “Original English Lady Cricketers”. The sides, accompanied by managers as well as chaperones, were “elegantly and appropriately attired”.
The cricketers earned sixpence a day. The sides were named (rather unimaginatively) Reds and Blues. Case mentions several advertisements, that depicted the ladies as “genuine novelty” and “refined lady athletes, not burlesque masqueraders”.
The cricketers received brickbats from several corners of the media, but Lillywhite’s Annual – one of the giants – voiced support: “As an exercise, cricket is probably not so severe as lawn tennis, and it is certainly not dangerous as hunting or skating, and if, therefore, the outcome of the present movement is to induce ladies more generally to play cricket, we shall consider that a good result has been attained.”
But women’s cricket of the era was anything but mainstream. “Femininity” was at stake, after all! “Cricket is essentially a masculine game … If cricket is to become a recognised game at ladies’ schools … The girls of the future will be horney-handed, wide-shouldered, deep-voiced … and with biceps like a blacksmith’s,” ran a piece in Birmingham Daily Mail in the 1880s.
Another newspaper of the same time warned how, if women played cricket, “the man of the future will be the stocking-mender and the children’s nurse.”
The June 1890 edition of The Graphic noted: “At country houses the ladies’ match is quite an institution. It is not harder work than lawn-tennis, it gives opportunity for the wearing of some very pretty costumes, and it amuses the other sex.”
Women’s cricket was not popular even at Oxford or Cambridge. Lady Margaret and Somerville Halls (both Oxford) banned both women’s cricket and hockey in the 1880s.
“Except for Girton and Newnham, overtly masculine games were eschewed; and although the female member of games-playing gradually became more vigorous and skilled, it always occurred inappropriately modest attire and carefully avoided flagrant violations of behavioural rules,” wrote Kent Hollingsworth in The Kentucky Thoroughbred.
Eton Boy, a piece in the November 1895 edition of Physical Culture, contained the following excerpt: “Girls are sometimes pretty and wear nice clothes, and can sit on coaches to watch us play cricket … but girls cannot run, jump or climb trees.”
But nothing reflects the mindset towards women’s sports of the era than the letters Violet Cooper of Girton wrote to her fiancé Cecil Brown between 1906 and 1909. In her correspondence, Cooper promised not to “overdo” hockey but warned Brown of “shock” at her attempts towards qualifying for the boat race and wearing a “short” shirt for golf and hiking.
The 20th century saw a gradual rise, though cricket took longer than hockey to rise. In the first decade of the century, there were about fifty women’s hockey clubs for every cricket club.
Hollingsworth reasoned: “The gentlewomen who played cricket considered it more a healthy break from routine than anything else, and they deliberately reinforced the separate nature of the women’s game in order to preserve womanly images.”
The advent of WCA
The foundation of Women’s Cricket Association at 5 Buckingham Gate, Victoria, London on October 4, 1926 was the single-most important incident in the history of Women’s cricket till at least the 1970s. They continued to run as a separate body till their affiliation with ECB, in 1999.
With a membership fee set at five shillings, WCA attracted significant membership. They hosted a Cricket Week in 1927 at Colwall Cricket Club, Malvern, where teams participated in “tunics of a sort most suitable to the game” (there was no uniform till this point). The Cricket Week still exists.
By 1929 they had 37 affiliated clubs, 32 schools, and several colleges. They organised a match that year, between London & District and Rest of England, which included major talents across the country. Women’s Cricket, edited by Marjorie Pollard, was launched in 1930, with circulation of over 500.
More importantly, they helped change the general attitude towards “femininity” of cricketers, though it may be argued that The Great War had played a role in that. Consider this 1927 excerpt from Hull Daily Mail: “Cricket is rapidly capturing the enthusiasm of the modern girl and I don’t see any reason why they should not make a success of it.”
Chauvinism was still there, but things had started to change.
However, there was another problem, as pointed out by McLaren: “The game was still expensive for those taking part. It was not wired enough to attract big, curious crowds, nor well enough established to count as a major sport and so attract sponsors.”
The women found distinguished fans in CB Fry and Frank Chester, but it was far from popular. It remained, as McLaren wrote, “a minor sport, with few women knowing anything about it, still less how to play it.”
If it was any consolation, women’s cricket still held an advantage over its counterparts in body-contact sports. “Although it was not without its critics, working-class women’s cricket never quite experienced the negative attention as women’s football,” wrote Case.
Interestingly, there was still no uniform attire. In fact, the sheer variety of cricket apparel was staggering. In their May 1931 issue, Women’s Cricket wrote: “Last season – without exaggeration, there were black shoes, brown shoes, shoes with coloured saddles. There were coloured woolly coats, even striped woolly coats. There were silk frocks, pique frocks, and all sorts of frocks – with sleeves, without sleeves, and some with nearly sleeves.”
WCA formalised the laws in 1931. In that same year the Lancashire and Durham County Associations were formed the same year, and Durham took on a combined team of Lancashire and Cheshire.
In a meeting at Todmorden in 1934, Yorkshire and Lancashire combined to form the English Women’s Cricket Federation. While not as prolific as WCA, EWCF was closer to the North, and there was no age restriction for memberships (you had to be sixteen to become a WCA member).
In 1933, one M Bryant scored 106, the first hundred in a WCA-recognised match, at Aigburth. That year an England team played The Rest at Leicester.
Before that, in 1932, WCA had organised an “international” between an English XI and a Scottish XI at New Road. England won by 91 runs, but the match witnessed the arrival of three Scotswomen.
Off-spin-bowling all-rounder Myrtle Maclagan got 50 and 41 to go with 3/42 and 4/35; wicketkeeper Betty Snowball scored 9 and 14 and had two dismissals; Betty Archdale got 15 not out and 13. We will see more of them in the sequel to this piece.
Amidst all this, Pollard managed to run Women’s Cricket virtually on her own. In a list of “grouses” in the May 1934 issue, she listed a few grouses, including “no one ever submits an article, instructive, interesting, or otherwise, to be printed in Women’s Cricket”.
She wrote instructions, reports for major matches, summaries, historical pieces, and more. She hunted down news and scorecards (often illegible or unintelligible) and typed them out. She found contributors, but not very frequently. It was not much different from running Wisden alone.
A proper international tour was on the cards at this stage. That duly took place in 1934-35. And Pollard wished them with the lines reproduced above.